A possible future: An overview of the design plan
This is a description of the overall concept and details of the renovation of this 100+ year old structure.
This is not a concrete list of requirements; the design is expected to shift as the construction continues. Some of the concepts will change over time, and a few may disappear entirely.
Although the house is under reconstruction and not yet finished, present tense is used in this text as a way to form the image more strongly in the reader’s mind.
The Orchard House is intended to be a place of retreat, whether for a few hours, a few days, or a full season. Building on the bones of a decrepit tenant house, the design restores its functionality as a living place. Its original purpose as a family dwelling is distilled down to a simple place for one person. By gluing the house into the landscape via internal and external features, it encourages a sense of place. By keeping its systems simple, durable, self-sufficient, and rooted in the surrounding resources, it lives lightly on the land.
Several abstract or high-level values inform the design and construction. These values are not necessarily goals or objectives, but rather traits that are inherent in the various parts of the design.
By its nature, the house is well away from the main road and nestled at the edge of an orchard in a small hollow adjoining a small creek and woods. The dominant sounds are those of the surrounding natural world; this is continued and encouraged.
Motors, pumps, fans, and other sources of mechanical noise or vibration are avoided. Water pumps and other elements of systems that require regular or automatic use are sited well away from the house. Appliances are silent or, better yet, avoided altogether.
Being in place
The house was previously rather inward-facing, with minimal windows and abrupt transitions between inside and outside. Views from the house only barely revealed the views of orchards and the mountains beyond. The adjacent woods were virtually ignored.
An increased window area, especially on the north and west sides, connects the house into the larger landscape. Surrounding porches and patios transition the verticality of the existing house into the horizontal land, and offer a way to expand the interior into the outside. Porches have roofs and screens, making those spaces useful as ‘outdoor rooms’ even during wet or hot weather, and helping to shade the house in summer.
Comfortable & healthy
Although the house is simple, it is livable throughout the year, given the typical climate of the area.
Windows will remain open for much of the spring, summer, and fall. Even outside of those times, the house allows for natural exchange of air without mechanical means.
Several existing single-pane windows are retained and restored, and placed along the east wall, where thermal variation is relatively low. Other windows are modern reproductions with double-pane glass to help maintain a cool interior in summer and a warm interior in winter.
In the summer, a dehumidifying system removes enough moisture from the air to make it comfortable. In the winter, the house is heated by a combination of hot-water radiators (heated via solar plus a gas-fired on-demand heater) and a wood stove (fueled by firewood from the surrounding forest).
Open yet textured interior
In its original use as a family dwelling, the interior of the house was divided into several small and rather dark rooms.
The house’s new identity is essentially one room, with various levels and nooks that create individual spaces. Doors and other opaque dividers are generally not necessary and are avoided, except exterior entrances, bathroom, closet, etc.
Simple, direct, durable, repairable
Decisions in design & building favor the simplest solution, and the one which is simplest to use.
Windows and doors have direct controls – or, better yet, no controls (e.g., a window opens by pushing up the sash). Lights are generally controlled by a single switch.
Appliances have direct controls. For example, a simple dial directly on a radiator is better than an electronic control that requires programming and interpretation. Equipment with screens or displays are avoided.
Materials and equipment are easily cleaned, maintained, and repaired. Areas with potential leaks or other problems are easily accessible. Inaccessible areas (e.g., voids under cabinets) are avoided. Electrical wires, pipes, and other systems may be mounted in conduits or chases on interior walls.
As much as possible, there is one obvious place to do or store something.
Good & useful lighting
Ambient lights are diffuse and/or reflect off walls & ceilings. Task/direct lights are oriented to avoid casting shadows on workspaces. Wherever possible, lights are controlled by only one switch. Switches for related circuits are located in the same junction box.
As the house is a place of retreat, it has utilities and storage for one person to live there full-time. There is storage for food, clothing, and household supplies. Appliances like laundry or dishwasher are not needed, as these exist in another house on the property.
Preservation, conservation, and natural materials
The house is of a simple design, and has aged well through the years, even in its abandonment of recent years. It has good bones and no major problems. In addition, it is situated near a year-round spring and excellent solar energy potential. The house has a long history of using the spring as a water source.
As much as possible, the structure, architectural components, and materials from the existing house is reused. As appropriate, windows and doors are rebuilt and restored.
The existing roof is replaced by a new standing-seam metal roof of similar style and color.
The local water & solar resources are used to supply the house. Modern treatment methods (e.g., UV treatment) are implemented where necessary for health or building codes.
The interior is either wood or natural plaster. Insulation is sheep’s wool. Synthetic building materials are avoided, in favor of natural/sustainable materials such as wood, iron/steel, wool, canvas, and leather. The building is allowed to breathe by using these natural materials, and not including synthetic moisture barriers.
Be able to close up and leave for extended time
Although somewhat in conflict with the idea of simple & direct systems, the house can be left unattended for a month or two at a time. In winter, radiators provide low-power/low-maintenance heating source; in summer, a dehumidifier removes the worst of the moisture in the air.
Spaces, uses, elements
Front entrance & porch
On the east side, a small porch (6’ deep) acts as the primary entrance to the house. This porch is the transition to the interior of the house.
The two existing windows on the east side are kept. The current second door (which has been permanently closed for many years) is removed and replaced with siding.
Once inside the house, a bench offers a place to take off or put on shoes, a place to put keys, wallet, etc., and coat- and hat-hooks for outdoor clothes.
From this interior transition, the other major elements of the interior can be accessed: upstairs to the sleeping area, to the right to the living room, or straight ahead to the kitchen and bathroom.
Back entrance & rear porch
Another door on the west side acts as the access to a larger porch. The rear porch is deeper (12’) than the front porch, making it a livable outside room. This porch is screened against insects. Screening can be removed during the colder times of year to allow more sunlight to enter the house.
The loft is the previous upstairs of the house, with all interior walls removed and an area cut out of the floor on the north end of the house to connect it with the downstairs.
Two catwalks, on the east & west sides of the house, approximately 4’ wide, allow for access to windows, as well as providing small sitting/working spaces. The wall spaces between windows are outfitted with bookshelves and cabinets for storage.
The existing windows on the east are retained in their current position. The windows on the west are expanded to offer wider views of the orchards, valley, and mountains beyond. Additional windows on the south allow for even lighting and solar energy during the colder and milder times of the year, but can be insulated with window quilts during the summer.
The sleeping area is directly at the top of the stairs. Due to the windows on all four sides, good air flow is possible while sleeping, along with views of the sunrise over North Mountain.
The existing ceiling is removed, raised as high as possible, and faced with beadboard salvaged from the old interior.
Located on the north side of the downstairs, the living room is primarily for one person to read, listen to music, watch movies, etc. A couch along the north wall faces a wood stove in the center of the house. A cabinet holding a sound system is along one wall, and records and other media along another. The stereo speakers are located upstairs in the loft.
North-facing windows provide a view of the woods, as well as ventilation to bring in cool air during the summer.
The kitchen is minimal, compact, and efficient. It is structured as a galley-style kitchen, approximately 10 feet wide, with sink on one side and a cooktop/oven on the other, and a wide workspace between. Counters are soapstone, a local material quarried in Virginia. Open shelves below the counter store food and pots & pans. Over the counter is a wide, openable window that looks west onto the porch and beyond.
The kitchen does not contain a refrigerator. Most refrigerators use compressors to generate cold temperatures, and are excessively noisy. A small number of refrigerators are absorption types, which are silent and run on gas; unfortunately, the available models are either too large for the space (and too large for one person), or are of the RV/marine type and quite inefficient. Therefore, a standard compressor type will be installed in the root cellar (see below), a short walk from the house.
As the volume of the house is relatively small, only a modest woodstove is necessary. A stove such as the Hearthstone Castleton is a good match for the space. Its soapstone structure moderates and buffer the heat, avoiding problems of overheating, and also allows long burn times during the coldest times of the winter.
The bathroom under the stairs contains a toilet, shower, and sink.
The bathroom is water tolerant, resistant to leaks and spills, and does not require bathmats or a shower door. Its floor is made of soapstone, much like the kitchen counters and the woodstove. A floor drain ensures water from the shower is kept away from the main floor area.
A low-flow/low-pressure shower head (such as the Rainshower® F-Series) is flush-mounted in the ceiling. An additional faucet, with hand-shower, is located approximately 18” from the floor. A single-control handle controls water pressure and temperature for both shower and floor-faucet.
Small storage shelves are built into the underside of the stairs and into the interior wall.
Ventilation is either passive, or via a small external fan that makes minimal noise.
The door to the bathroom is a pocket door which slides into the wall behind the kitchen counter.
As the house is small, there is little dedicated storage space. Household supplies are stored in the bathroom and kitchen. Clothing, books, and paperwork are stored in the loft. Long-term storage is stored in the root cellar, a short walk from the house.
Root cellar & mechanical room
A separate structure is bermed into the slope to the south, and backfilled and covered so that only the north-facing wall is exposed. A door allows entry into the space.
The cellar contains two separate rooms. The first room, taking approximately two-thirds of the total space, contains:
- Mechanical systems:
- UV/particulate water filtration
- buffer tanks for holding water
- AC power grid-intertie
- DC batteries
- controllers for DC solar panels and microhydro generator
- AC/DC inverter
- electrical panel
- Food storage:
- refrigerator & freezer
- shelves for dry storage
The second room acts as a traditional root cellar. To maintain proper humidity levels, it has a gravel floor, and a wall with door that separates the space from the main area.
Ventilation for both incoming and outgoing air keep the structure safe from mold & mildew.
Potable water is provided by the nearby spring. Heating of water for radiators, shower, and sinks is accomplished by solar-thermal heaters located in the orchard, as well as a propane on-demand heater installed near the plumbing cluster in the house.
The existing septic field is used for black/gray water.
Heating and cooling is passive and/or low-tech as much as possible. Further needs are provided via several methods:
- ground source heating/cooling by using nearby creek
- thermal water heating using solar panels in orchard
- hot-water radiators installed around house
- low-movement ceiling fans to circulate air
- wood-burning stove
- encouraging air flow inside (windows) and outside (open air space below house)
Existing grid connection is used mostly as a backup/secondary power source. Primary source is via solar-electric panels installed on slope to south above house, and micro-hydro generator installed at spring head. DC batteries store power for later use. Remaining power is pushed back to grid.
The house has a few separate circuits that are directly connected to grid, for occasional use for high-current appliances like vacuum cleaners.